Postcard from South Africa #4

One of the clearer rock art images from the site we called Round-the-Corner
One of the clearer rock art images from the site we called Round-the-Corner

Today we make the long drive from the border down to the south of Kruger and sadly neither Clare nor I are able to share in the driving so it is all on poor Johan, but he is very laid back about it all. As you’ll expect from me by now, the prospect of a long drive across South Africa is something I am looking forward to.

But first a real treat. A bush walk with Brigitta who showed us Koaxa’s Shelter yesterday. Its early morning and before breakfast but the bush is already alive with sounds and movement, hopefully nothing that’s planning on making us breakfast. The Mopane Bush Lodge takes its name from the mopane trees with their distinctive double winged leaves. They are everywhere and our walk is along narrow game trails. Brigitta cautions us to silence as there are leopard in the area, and Johan adds we should watch out for water buffalo too. Johan has a very healthy respect for these dangerous critters. Whenever I am out in the bush I can’t help thinking about hominins. With enclosing mopane all around us, and rustlings in the undergrowth, it reminds me of just how dangerous a life our earliest ancestors led.

Then its breakfast, and the long drive south. For me this is a day of pure pleasure. Effectively we parallel the western side of Kruger Park. Kruger is huge, 360 km long. As we travel south the view through windscreen is increasingly dominated by the Drakensberg Mountains. We pass the entrance to Blyde River Canyon, a breathtakingly spectacular gorge, a favourite of mine from the old days. This section is known as the Drakensberg escarpment, separating Kruger and the Lowveld, from the Highveld and central plateau to the west. It is amazing.

We arrive at the Malelane gate in southern Kruger in the dark and Johan has a meal and a well-deserved early night, as does Clare. I opt for a well-deserved G&T and the wi-fi, on the balcony which overlooks the river. In the darkness beyond is Kruger. I can’t help thinking about how hominins would have fared at night out there. My old friend Rob Hosfield has been on about this for a while, and listening to the night sounds across the river I think he is on to something.

In retrospect checking e-mail was a mistake.

Thursday 7th May.

An early start and we are heading through Kruger for Berg-en-Dal camp. In Afrikaans this means mountains and dales. It’s a fitting name for this part of the park. My earlier trips to Kruger were in the middle sections of the park which are much flatter. We meet our two guides Rasta and Peter, and we are off hunting for rock art sites. The morning is taken up with a visit to three of them.

This is real adventure stuff as we leave the vehicles and head off into the bush on foot with Peter in front and Rasta bringing up the rear, rifles loaded and ready. I ask the two of them if the places we visit have names, but they shake their heads. We call them Rasta’s Shelter, Peter’s Koppie, and Round-the-Corner rock, though I presume the rock art specialists who will have studied these sites have other names for them. There is a clear difference between these sites and Koaxa’s Shelter up north. To start with they are much more exposed to the elements and the images have suffered more. They are paler and the paintings more difficult to see. Peter and Rasta who haven’t visited these sites for a few years shake their heads sadly. The images have deteriorated a lot since they were last here. ‘Gone soon.’ says Rasta who really cares about these sites. They are an interesting contrast to Koaxa’s Shelter and important if for no other reason than they show the range and diversity of the art, as well as the problems faced in conserving it.

From left to right, Rasta, Peter, Clare and Johan standing in front of the art at the site we called Peter's Koppie
From left to right, Rasta, Peter, Clare and Johan standing in front of the art at the site we called Peter’s Koppie

Peter hands out biltong and we trek back. At one point Peter makes the stop sign. We all freeze, and I just know Johan is thinking buffalo. He’s got me at it too. False alarm. A bit further on and the guys are excited about some prints – possibly cheetah – they haven’t been seen this far south in the park for a while. Again I am thinking of hominins moving through these landscapes while everything out there is bigger fiercer, stronger, and has bigger teeth. It’s a wonder we actually made it!

The afternoon is taken up with a game drive. We see plenty of elephant, buffalo and giraffe and a nervous family of warthogs. A rhino comes close to the van but we stay quiet and he wanders off. Those poor hominins.

It’s been another memorable day and the game drive was just excellent. I’ll never forget walking through the bush though, that was real Africa too. Another quiet evening on the veranda with a G&T, smoking my e-pipe. This time I wise up, I leave the wi-fi alone.

Friday 8th May

Today is our last day in South Africa, and both Clare and I are feeling rather sad about leaving. It has been a magical trip. We drive up the N4 leaving the Lowveld and climbing the escarpment at Ondervalle where Paul Kruger had his house in the last days of the Boer war – again Johan fills the landscape with stories and history. Were back on the Highveld and heading for Joburg.

Our last stop is the University of the Witwatersrand and the new (well new since my day) Evolutionary Studies Institute. Wow. Dr Bernard Zipfel gives us a tour and we get to see the new study centre with its facilities for researchers to come and study A. sediba, Littlefoot and the Taung child, and so many other of the famous fossils that have made South Africa such an important place for the human story. The museum attached is just fantastic. But beware, there is something lurking in wait here that’s far more dangerous than Johan’s buffalo – the bookshop. Boy did the bank account take a beating in that particular hominin trap.

I also get to see my old friend Professor Kathy Kuman though sadly there is too little time to talk with her about her work and what her students are up to.

Then it’s the airport and sadly goodbye to Johan.

Clare and I have many happy memories to take away, new friends made and old ones revisited. I have seen more of a country I passionately love and learned more about some of the best archaeology in the world.

Really, I wish you all had been here to share it.


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